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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 28th May 2012

Today, for a change, a numbers puzzle. Can you work out the significance of the numbers in the following piece?

Since I started this blog, nearly a year ago, I have often written about ricin (1) the toxic (2) component found in the seeds of Ricinus communis, castor oil plant. I’ve said that it usually gets mentioned in connection with an allegedly planned Al Qaeda (3) inspired terror (4) attack (5).

It is regularly said to be suitable for use as an airborne (6) dirty bomb (7) but this is based on confusion between it and the nerve agent (8) sarin (9).

It gets brought into just about any story about extremism (10) whether from home grown (11) right-wing radicals (12) or from Islamist (13) fundamentalism (14) but there has been no serious plot (15) ever uncovered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (16), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (17) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (18).

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

I constantly wonder why members of a militia (19) should want to bother with a biological (20) substance when they can obtain more effective weapons like a pipe bomb (21) as long as they don’t fall for a sting operation mounted by the cops (22), otherwise known as the police (23), the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) (24) agency or any other of the law enforcement authorities (25).

These false beliefs about ricin often lead to the evacuation (26) of any building where an unidentified powder (white) (27) is discovered and thought to be likely to cause a hazardous (28) incident (29).

But it is not just ricin that gets linked to terrorism (30). I wrote about the speculation that proceeds from smuggling Catha edulis, khat, were being used to finance Al Shabaab (31), the Somalia (32) based group with links to the pirates (33) that have caused so much trouble for transportation security (34) in the Indian ocean.

Khat, of course, is not a biological weapon (35); it is a mild psychoactive producing much smaller symptoms (36) than things like cocaine (37), marijuana (38) or heroin (39).

It is used in a number of countries, including Yemen (40), Ethiopia and Kenya.

Did you work out what the numbers refer to? They denote words taken from the ‘current list of terms that will be used by the NOC [National Operations Center] when monitoring social media sites to provide situational awareness and establish a common operating picture.’  

The list appears as part of the USA’s Department of Homeland Security Analyst’s Desktop Binder.1 The binder describes the mission of the NOC’s Media Monitoring Capability but it does so in the sort of gobbledegook that can be claimed to be completely innocent but means that federal agencies are spying on ordinary people on a huge scale.

The forty words I used are just a part of a very long list that includes things like ‘pork’, ‘bust’, ‘telecommunications’ and ‘recall’.

When I wrote about the ‘no-fly’ lists used to screen would-be air travellers I said;

‘Such lists may be useful but the danger is that the longer they become the less useful they are. Clearly, at the extreme end, any adult could be a threat but security agencies would have no hope of detecting potential attacks if they included everyone on their lists.’

Similarly, a long list of words to watch out for is just going to generate a huge amount of meaningless ‘noise’. I also said that by focussing on the no-fly list the possibility arose of someone not on the list not being scrutinised sufficiently.

Equally, if a word is not on the list then, presumably, it is ignored. So, I can use the word ‘poison’ with impunity. 


1.Analyst’s Desktop Binder. U.S. Department of Homeland Security  


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